Tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied Monday in a display of might and loyalty that underscored the regime's guiding "military first" principal amid tensions with rival South Korea.
The government mobilized 100,000 North Koreans for the annual New Year's rally, which honors leader Kim Jong Il and reaffirms full public support for his rule in the year ahead.
Pumping their right fists in unison, they marched through Pyongyang's main Kim Il Sung plaza pledging their loyalty, some waving huge red flags as top officials watched from a viewing stand.
Kim Jong Il did not appear among them in footage broadcast by APTN. The 66-year-old leader has not shown up at a mass event since reportedly suffering a stroke in mid-August, even missing the country's milestone 60th anniversary in September.
Denial of Kim's collapse
But North Korean officials deny the reports of Kim's collapse. They say Kim has been busy touring farms, factories and military units across the country, with state-run media recording some two dozen trips since early October alone.
Most of the reports, photos and footage do not specify an exact location or date, and South Korean officials say they cannot confirm the visits with so little reliable information.
Still, foreign officials and analysts pore over each photo, frame and statements for clues to what's going on in the reclusive communist nation.
For his first trip of the new year, Kim spent the day with soldiers, the Korean Central News Agency said, marking a change from his usual routine of paying tribute to workers at industrial sites or at the grave of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. The tank unit is North Korea's first; it once fell under his father's command and is considered the birthplace of North Korea's "songun" military policy, the report said.
In Seoul, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said it was the first time since 1995 that Kim spent New Year's Day with the military — one of several moves he said demonstrate North Korea's renewed efforts to show the military's primacy.
Kim Jong Il rules the totalitarian nation in his capacity as chairman of the country's all-powerful National Defense Commission.
The concept of "military first" was a focal point of the regime's New Year statement, a joint editorial from the country's three main publications that is the closest thing to an annual state of the union address in Pyongyang.
Analysts say Kim Jong Il is reaffirming the military's might as a way to tighten his grip on the nation of 23 million at a time of economic hardship and political uncertainty. The regime also is setting the stage for a post-Kim Jong Il era, experts said.
Kim inherited leadership upon his father's 1994 death but the "Dear Leader," believed to suffer from diabetes and heart disease, has not named any of his sons to succeed him.
"He will continue to put importance on the military until he completes naming his successor," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University.
The editorial, which laid out ways to build up the economy and repeated the regime's commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, lacked its customary criticisms of the U.S. but excoriated Seoul.
Peninsula remains divided
North and South Korea, which fought a three-year war in the 1950s, remain divided by the world's most heavily guarded border. Relations warmed under 10 years of liberal leadership in Seoul, but quickly turned frosty when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office last February refusing to hand over aid without condition.
Though reliant on handouts from Seoul, the North cut off all ties with the South, and it emerged Monday that the senior Pyongyang policymaker for inter-Korean relations was fired in the fallout. New names have appeared in KCNA reports in recent weeks, signaling a government shuffle in the capital.
In Pyongyang, there was no sign of uncertainty about the future in footage broadcast by APTN. Scores turned out for the staged rally despite the bitter cold, shouting slogans in support of Kim and waving banners promising to carry out his policies.
"The New Year is a year of a great change, which will be embellished with noteworthy events in the history of the construction of a great, prosperous and powerful socialist country," said Choe Tae Bok, secretary of the powerful Central Committee of the Workers' Party. He called it "a year of a revolutionary surge."